Mississippi

How ‘alternative data’ is used to paint a rosier picture of Mississippi

Domenico “Mimmo” Parisi, an Italian-born Mississippi State University sociology professor and data scientist, leaned back in the high chair on a stage at Northeast Mississippi Community College in October.

He listened, arms crossed, as Jake McGraw, the public policy coordinator at the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, presented his findings on the state’s “brain drain” crisis. Mississippi is losing more of its millennials — about the equivalent of Tupelo’s population between 2010 and 2016 — than most other states in the country, Census data shows.

To experts studying the phenomenon, the state’s outmigration is indicative of poor quality of life factors in Mississippi.

Parisi held his head down, massaging his brow with his hand.

When Parisi’s turn came, he suggested some people just “can’t smell the roses.”

The current size of Mississippi’s millennial population is on track with the national average, Parisi told the audience at the college’s Phi Theta Kappa honors society event. In short, Parisi argued, the state is not experiencing “brain drain.”

“The number is accurate but the narrative is false,” Parisi told Mississippi Today in a follow-up interview, referencing McGraw’s presentation. “The narrative is more important than the number.”

Parisi’s job is to shape narratives. He is the founder of NSPARC, an academic research center that for the last decade has gathered countless pieces of otherwise confidential data from various state agencies about Mississippi residents, including where they attended college, whether they received food stamps or unemployment benefits, how much income they earn and more.

‘The keeper of the data’

Parisi’s goal is to use what he calls “alternative data” to write reports supported by the academic heft of a major research university that make Mississippi, in his words, “look bigger and better” than national statistics and rankings typically do, in part to attract businesses.

“Alternative data is basically what now is going to drive any form of economic growth,” Parisi said. “It’s no longer (Washington) D.C. telling us our unemployment numbers.”

Parisi’s alternative data has been lauded by such elected officials as Gov. Phil Bryant, who has long bemoaned news media painting Mississippi negatively.

Because Parisi’s research center is the sole possessor of the most comprehensive database in the state, one could argue he’s the authority on Mississippi’s story. To others, though, he’s demonstrated his intent to focus strictly on positive statistics and, to take it a step further, his willingness to find and supply data to reach a specified goal or support agendas.

In disagreeing with McGraw’s “brain drain” research, Parisi did not challenge the legitimacy of McGraw’s data sources or the methodology in his presentation.

“It’s just that it leads to a conclusion that he’s stated many times that he’s not in the business of reaching,” McGraw told Mississippi Today.

The scene is emblematic of Parisi’s work — which includes shaping public policy, particularly in workforce development and early childhood education — and the quandary he presents for critics of that work.

Compounding that criticism is the fact that his roughly $15 million quasi-governmental entity housed at Mississippi State is primarily funded by state agencies that answer to the governor.

With Bryant’s full-throated backing, NSPARC has quietly grown into one of the most powerful agencies in economic policymaking, and Parisi one of the most influential figures in state government.

Most recently, Parisi has served as chair of the State Early Childhood Advisory Council; Mississippi’s representative on the White House Task Force for STEM; and a member of the State Workforce Investment Board, Governor’s Workforce Cabinet, Southern Regional Education Board and the National Advisory Panel for Higher Education.

To put it another way: “The keeper of the data is the kingmaker because they’ve got the data and nobody else has it,” said retired state economist Pete Walley, who helped facilitate the transfer of Institutes of Higher Learning’s data to NSPARC. “…Once he got all that data, he kind of was a powerbroker.”

“I knew he played to the politics of it,” Walley added.

Private data, public money

Parisi created the National Strategic Planning and Analysis Research Center, known by economic development gurus and Capitol insiders simply as NSPARC, in 2005 as the professor began developing the state’s first longitudinal data system, a version of which now exists in nearly all 50 states.

This centralized system, housed at NSPARC’s Mississippi State data center, stores three terabytes of information about Mississippians who have received services from one of several state agencies, colleges or universities. These include the state departments of health, education, corrections and human services, which oversees Mississippi public assistance programs.

Three terabytes translates to approximately 750 million pages of text (assuming a one-page plain text file is four kilobytes).

The idea behind the database, which the state calls LifeTracks, is to combine datasets to map people’s lives over time. The ultimate aim is to determine the effectiveness of the state services, a method the federal government began encouraging states to adopt in 2006.

NSPARC receives federal grants, funneled through the Mississippi Department of Education, to operate LifeTracks, which lawmakers established in 2013. Since 2009, Mississippi has received $17.5 million from the federal Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems Grant Program.

The Legislature has also provided $8.2 million through the education budget, with most of that going to NSPARC, to start and maintain LifeTracks. Those payments started in fiscal year 2014 at $1.8 million annually, but dropped to $1.6 million in 2017, $800,000 in 2018 and $400,000 in 2019, according to the Legislative Budget Office. Bryant recommended funding LifeTracks at $1.8 million in fiscal year 2019, but it was not fulfilled.

On its website, LifeTracks provides several datasets related to K-12, community college and public university education, such as the percentage of high school or college graduates participating in the Mississippi workforce one, three and five years after graduation.

But even though the work is supported by taxpayers, the public cannot access the full database. Any additional analysis is delivered through reports only “stakeholders and policymakers” may request.

“The system will allow stakeholders and policymakers access data on state residents from birth to the workforce to drive accountability and investment decisions,” state statue reads.

Shortly after the law established a LifeTracks governing board, made up of representatives from each agency providing data to the system, that board voted to give NSPARC the contract as the official state data clearinghouse. The center did not have to go through a bid process because NSPARC is a state entity rather than a private vendor, according to minutes from the Dec. 18, 2013 meeting. The board hasn’t met since 2017 and only met once that year, according to the LifeTracks website, where minutes are posted.

In accordance with the LifeTracks governing board’s rules and regulations, when NSPARC receives data from state agencies, it replaces the social security number of each person within the system with a unique 10-digit number that is then linked across the participating state agencies. This is how the system is able to cross-reference the data in order to track populations over time.

“Other internal identification numbers shall remain part of the transferred data to facilitate data validation and matching and to allow governmental entities contributing data to LifeTracks to use information from LifeTracks for internal agency use,” the rules read.

Parisi also said all data is fully stripped of identifying information, such as names and birth dates, before anyone outside the state agencies can see it.

From there, on behalf of state officials and business groups, NSPARC researchers prepare various reports, which Parisi said go through a rigorous peer-review process.

‘Data is power’

When Mississippi Today requested LifeTracks reports last fall, board chair Mark Henry, director of the Mississippi Department of Employment Security recently appointed by Bryant to head the state’s Workers’ Compensation Commission, denied the request. The news organization sought reports comparing the earnings of people who leave public assistance programs after receiving state-funded work training versus those who pursue further education.

Henry said he consulted with the attorney general’s office and “in the legal counsel’s opinion, reporters do not qualify as ‘stakeholders.’”

Mississippi Today conducted an hour-long interview with Henry, during which he outlined the LifeTracks report request process but could not answer specifics about how NSPARC retrieves and handles the data, referring those questions to NSPARC.

Mississippi State University and NSPARC denied multiple interview requests for this story.

An attorney general’s spokesperson subsequently told Mississippi Today the office could not provide a list of qualifying LifeTracks requesters because the board determines what constitutes a stakeholder, not the attorney general.

In the past, including in fiscal year 2018, records show that LifeTracks has delivered reports to non-governmental entities such as nonprofits Mississippi Energy Institute, an energy-related economic development think tank, and Delta Health Alliance.

Raul Fletes, the assistant executive director for research and effectiveness at the Mississippi Community College Board, said NSPARC’s necessary role as the state’s data clearinghouse makes it a target for cynicism.

“I think there’s always a little jealousy when an agency or a group of people have so much data in their hands. Knowledge is power, so data is power,” Fletes said. “Being a data guy myself, if you don’t have an agency like that, how are you going to put together a reliable plan of action? How are you going to put together a reliable report showing your strengths and your weaknesses? Can it be used for evil? Of course it can. But I think there are enough checks and balances that they have that I believe the data is being used properly.”

A growing agency

Operating LifeTracks is just one responsibility of NSPARC, a growing agency with 125 employees, including data analysts, researchers, programmers, and graduate assistants.

In the last five years, NSPARC’s annual operating revenue from sponsored research has doubled to $12.2 million as it has increased its role in the backend operations of state agencies. These include Mississippi Department of Employment Security, which administers unemployment benefits and exists to help people find jobs, and Mississippi Department of Human Services.

In 2018, NSPARC received $5.5 million and $3.5 million from the departments of employment-security and human services respectively, compared to $3 million and $82,500 in 2014, according to revenue reports Mississippi Today received after an official records request and a nearly month-long back and forth with the university. NSPARC has also received between nearly $1 million and $2.3 million through Mississippi Department of Education each year since 2014, mostly to operate LifeTracks.

NSPARC provides technical support, software research and development and data analysis services to these agencies as part of the state’s Workforce Innovation & Opportunity Act Combined Plan submitted to the federal government. Ultimately, the goal is to integrate the services and case management of each agency so that “from the moment one enters the education and workforce system, he or she will be presented with the necessary tools to choose and pursue a career pathway that is relevant to current and future labor markets,” according to the plan.

NSPARC developed an online job portal similar to Indeed or Monster called Mississippi Works, which is also the name of Bryant’s signature workforce initiative. This is the tool on which Bryant bases his assertion of 42,000 job openings across the state.

Seeing the fruits of these taxpayer-funded purchases is more difficult. Since the creation of the job-matching software NSPARC developed, the number of people the state is helping connect to employment each year has remained constant. The employment security department helped place 30,686 people into jobs out of 64,508 people who registered for services in 2011, according to the oldest available annual report.

The number of people signing up to use the services skyrocketed to 266,777 in the following year but the number of people actually finding jobs through the service did not.

By 2015, the year after Mississippi Works launched, 208,596 people registered and the employment security department placed 31,484 people into jobs. The most recent annual reportshows the department placed 26,268 people, or about 13 percent of those who registered in 2016.

While the department of employment security’s contract with NSPARC to “provide continuing expertise in the management and analysis of administrative records” is available online, the human service department’s agreement with NSPARC is not. Mississippi Today has submitted a records request for the human service department’s agreement as well as weekly and quarterly performance reports that NSPARC must send the department of employment security as part of their contract. The news organization is still waiting for the records.

‘Funded by folks with an agenda’

NSPARC works for a host of other groups such as the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association, an influential lobbying and trade organization.

In 2015, NSPARC conducted a report on the manufacturer’s association’s behalf to show the benefits of eliminating the franchise tax, which state lawmakers voted to phase out in 2016.

The report, provided to lawmakers during their consideration of the law, anticipated increases in new jobs (3,514), personal income ($288 million), Gross Domestic Product ($282 million) and new income tax revenue ($28 million).

The franchise-tax report NSPARC wrote did not attempt to answer whether the estimated benefits would offset the losses to the state budget as a result of the tax elimination.

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, spoke against the legislation, even offering a tongue-in-cheek amendment that would have commissioned a new study and, if it forecast less revenue than the NSPARC report estimated, would have punitively reduced Mississippi State’s budget accordingly. It failed.

“I have a concern that there is this extreme economic viewpoint which is being presented as, it appears to me, the opinion of Mississippi State University and it’s being funded by folks with an agenda. I think all that’s troubling,” Bryan said. “…You do research for the truth, not for the answer that your funder wants.”

The State Economist’s office eventually estimated the policy would cause the state budget to take a hit after the law passed. The August 2016 report, titled Economic and Fiscal Analysis of Four Tax Policy Changes in the Taxpayer Pay Raise Act of 2016, stated, “While we cannot estimate the change in investment from the elimination of the franchise tax and therefore the additional tax revenue such an investment would net the General Fund, we do not expect it to be sufficient to restore the revenue lost. Transfers into the General Fund in FY 2015 were in excess of $260 million. Making up that much revenue is a very high hurdle.”

“That’s their opinion,” said Jay Moon, president and CEO of the Mississippi Manufacturer’s Association. “… He’s looking at it from a revenue-loss standpoint, and we’re looking at it from a competition standpoint — what is going to make us grow.”

Moon, previously of the Mississippi Development Authority, said Mississippi’s franchise tax, one of the only of its kind in the country, had made the state uncompetitive in recruiting employers. “What is the revenue loss we’re accruing because businesses don’t locate here or don’t expand? … How are you going to project it, because you don’t know,” Moon said.

Economic forecasting “can’t answer every question,” he added.

Moon, who served as the first chair of the LifeTracks governing board that gave the initial contract to NSPARC, said he’s been working with the research agency for over a decade. “I know the quality of the professors that work there,” he said. “What they do is based on the data. They don’t skew the data or push it in one way or another.”

But in leaving out certain context in their reports, McGraw said, NSPARC “seems to be operating like a think tank and not a university based research center.”

“They’re going a lot further than anybody else in terms of deeply integrating their work into the mission of political leaders and business leaders,” McGraw said. “…There are plenty of people who want the conclusions they’ve reached and so they’ll hold it up like gospel.”

Even the one-page “Mississippi Economy Scorecard” NSPARC published in November looks a lot different from materials generated by the state economist’s office recently. The NSPARC report focuses on positive stats such as the state’s historically low unemployment rate, a year-old Georgetown University report that ranks Mississippi No. 2 for creating jobs that don’t require a bachelor’s degree and the fact that more than 200,000 people used Mississippi Works to look for a job.

The report also states Mississippi’s workforce participation rate among Mississippians between the age of 25 and 55 is “approximately 80 percent,” “which mirrors the national trend.”

A closer look at the data reveals that Mississippi’s workforce participation rate among this age group is 78.2 percent — the fifth worst in the nation — compared to the national average of 82.1 percent. A February state economist’s presentation included a ranking of all states by this measurement.

“We (the state economist’s office) always played the straight up, ‘Here are the facts, these are the best numbers we have,’” said Walley, who left the state economist’s office in 2018. “We didn’t try to play the partisan side and that is, ‘Tell me what you’re looking for.’”

After a while, Walley said, the governor stopped turning to the state economist’s office for information.

“We produced several reports that the governor, in essence, looked at and said, ‘Why did you do this?’ or ‘Who told you to do this?’” Walley said. “You get down to, whomever is in charge has a worldview and an agenda they’re trying to push. So why would they go to someone who doesn’t help them preach their worldview?”

Darrin Webb, the current state economist, told Mississippi Today that NSPARC often uses different data from the traditional, federal reporting and publicly available data such as from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. As a result, Webb said: “I don’t know how they get some of the stuff they come up with.”

Millennials leaving?

In January of 2018, following reports on Mississippi’s high millennial outmigration shown through census data, Parisi drafted a special report to Gov. Bryant using overall population numbers from the same census data to downplay the issue.

Using the raw numbers of domestic migration instead of percentages, Parisi minimized Mississippi’s net loss of 9,885 people between 2016 and 2017 by comparing that of all states, regardless of their size.

“Here are the facts, supported by data, that refute the lazy Fake News narrative about Mississippi’s population,” Bryant wrote on Facebook with a link to the report last May. The governor’s office did not respond to several interview requests for this story.

Parisi wrote about his findings in a 2017 op-ed published in several newspapers, saying, “How data are presented can have a significant impact on the image of the state. If we buy into gloom-and-doom conclusions, how can we ever convince our children to live and work in Mississippi?”

“When telling the full story, we cannot ignore the power of data or the responsibility that goes with it,” he added.

Parisi attributed some of Mississippi’s population loss to a decline in teenage pregnancy that he credited to state leadership’s “aggressive policies,” such as adopting abstinence-centered sex education, even though the population in question had already been born and would not have been impacted by a recent decline in births.

“That’s an entirely separate conversation and it’s deliberately separate, in my opinion,” McGraw said. “…It still kind of baffles me that having a conversation about data with the head of the leading data research center in the state can so quickly depart from data and turn into a battle of broader values … and make it about a personal or political agenda.”

McGraw said the departure of native Mississippians is only half the problem, the other being that the state is not making up for those losses by attracting outsiders to locate here. That’s primarily because of Mississippi’s low rankings for economic wellbeing, health outcomes and education, McGraw said.

In response, Parisi reflected on his decision to move to Mississippi after earning his phD at Pennsylvania State University in 1998. His friends and colleagues warned him of Mississippi’s reputation of racism and prejudice: “I was terrified,” he said. But instead, he found a place he could call home.

When he got here, Parisi said, “I kept asking myself why people cannot appreciate this wonderful state … I understand you have all these problems, but if you can’t smell the roses when they are just in front of you and you dismiss them as well, then we lose from the beginning. There’s no way we can win.”

“I remember George Schloegel, this dear friend of mine on the Coast, president and chair of the Hancock Bank, multi-millionaire, and we’re talking and saying, ‘Why? Why people are so negative about Mississippi? I don’t get it. I love this place. I have a wonderful house. I have a wonderful life, wonderful people. I’ve never experienced — I understand we have a history of discrimination,’” Parisi continued. “…We have become a state that often we forget to tell the rest of the world that we are not the same state we were.”

Read Next

Tracking with the rest of the country, Mississippi’s economy is on an upswing, though improving more slowly than other states since the 2008 recession, according to the February state economist’s presentation. The state recorded a historically low unemployment rate of 4.7 percent in 2018, still one of the worst rates in the county.

Nearly one-in-five people in Mississippi live below the poverty line and the state’s median household income of $42,000 falls under a living wage for a single parent, according to the MIT living wage calculator.

As NSPARC director, Parisi’s 2019 salary was $234,000, five and a half times the median household income of the state. He received a $9,000 raise in 2018.

But Parisi won’t receive that check from Mississippi State for the next year. In February, the professor was tapped by the new right-wing Italian government to lead the National Agency for Active Labor Policies, the nation’s public employment office also known as Anpal.

Parisi is taking a one-year, unpaid sabbatical from the university to take the job in Italy, which includes running a new $8 billion workforce development and public income project aimed at alleviating the country’s 8.4 percent poverty rate, the highest in over a decade, according to national statistics bureau ISTAT.

Parisi is planning to take what he’s learned in Mississippi over the last decade to help his native Italy.

He got the job after visiting the country last year for a workforce development conference, where he said the audience was “blown away” by his description of how his data analysis and job-matching software has advanced workforce development in the state.

Some newspapers in Italy have dubbed his innovation the “miracle of Mississippi.”

Read more at MississippiToday.org

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